Sunday, April 8, 2018

"Sister, I think there's been a miracle!" Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Easter 2018

Sermon for Sunday 8 April 2018

2nd Sunday of Easter

Baptism of Paul A., age 12

Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

You know you live in Jerusalem when you stop at the liquor store (for communion wine, of course!) and the shopkeeper says, “Sister, I think there’s been a miracle.”
I thought we were talking about the weather, so I said, “Aiwa, the weather is amazing today!”

“No,” he said, showing me his phone. “I mean there’s been a miracle—in the church!”
I glanced at the video playing on his phone screen and saw what appeared to be the interior of the Holy Sepulcher Church, just inside the front door, in the area of the unction stone.

The video was shaky, but it showed a scene of much commotion—shouting, running, lots of “Hallelujahs”. Suddenly the camera focused on the slab of stone itself, and I saw it was splattered with what appeared to be blood.

“See!” said my friend the shopkeeper. “It’s a miracle. And no one was hurt. No one was hurt! So how did the blood get there?”

Now, I could think of a number of ways blood, or something that looked like blood, could appear on that slab of stone, but I asked: “When was this video taken?”

“Two hours ago,” he answered very reverently. “They even closed the church.”

Now, I had just left our church office not 30 minutes before, and the Old City was pretty nuts, being Orthodox Good Friday, and the end of Passover, and time for Muslim Friday prayers. Still, I hadn’t noticed the kind of commotion on the Muristan that might accompany a recent miracle.

And they don’t often just close the Holy Sepulcher Church.

Needless to say, I had my doubts.

“Wow,” I said, grabbing my bag of purchases. “Al hamdulillah! Thanks be to God!”
But, as I left the store and started towards home, my first thought was: I need to go see this miracle for myself.

I mean, why not? When would I ever again be around the corner from an apparent miracle? I even thought about running home to put on my clergy collar, to help me get access to the church…

But no! That would be silly. The video, the blood, the miracle, was clearly a fake. Who would believe such a thing?

So I drove home. I made a sandwich, took off my shoes, and sat down.

And then I spent 30 minutes searching for that miracle video on the internet, so I could see it for myself.

 “Have you believed because you have seen?” asked Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

One week ago, on the Mt of Olives, it was so very easy to believe in miracles. As the Redeemer congregation gathered in the darkness on the mountain, waiting for the sun to rise, you could feel the excitement in the brisk morning air. And as the sun lifted slowly over the mountains of Jordan, illuminating the valley, and the settlements, and even the separation wall below us, it was remarkably easy to believe in the power of love over death.

It was easy to believe in the ultimate triumph of justice over injustice.
It was easy to believe in the power of God’s grace and mercy over humanity’s selfishness and sin.
And it was so easy to proclaim, with Christians around the world:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

But just one week later, although we are gathered in Jerusalem, around the corner from the Church of the Resurrection, our certainty in the power of Christ’s resurrection faces some challenges. The tomb and its power, however, seem to be everywhere:

The situation in Gaza and at the borders is going from bad to worse…again.
A van in Germany drove into a crowd of innocent shoppers yesterday...again.
Relationships are still broken or struggling.
Loved ones are still sick or dying.
Away from the glory of Easter morning, the tomb—which last week clearly represented resurrection hope and God’s victory over death—can this week just look like death, and the certainty of it.

“Have you believed because you have seen?” said Jesus. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”

It was later on Easter evening when the disciples met together in a locked room. It was only hours after the resurrection, and already fear and doubt were taking hold in their hearts. But Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” He showed them his hands and his side—and instantly their fear was replaced with joy.
Now the story might have ended there, with the Risen Christ providing blessed assurance to his disciples…but of course Thomas wasn’t with them that night.
Naturally, Thomas had some doubts.

Thomas had some questions for his friends—and there were no YouTube videos for them to share as evidence!

So Thomas said: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

And then it was an entire week before Thomas also saw Jesus.
It was an entire week before Thomas put his finger in the wounds of his hands and his side.
It was an entire week before Thomas also uttered those famous words, “My Lord and my God!”

You know, it’s almost become a joke among preachers that nearly every modern sermon on this text includes the phrase, “Poor Thomas, he gets a bad rap. We shouldn’t call him Doubting Thomas, because eventually he did believe!

And I confess I’ve probably preached a sermon with that same theme. 

The thing is, preachers really do want to redeem Thomas from two thousand years of being called names! We really do want to convey the message that Thomas shouldn’t be defined by his period of doubt. After all—the other disciples doubted, too! It’s just that Jesus showed up for them an entire week earlier.

So this is not a sermon bashing Thomas.
But neither do I want skip over the fact that Thomas had resurrection questions.

This week, I’ve been contemplating that weeklong period when Thomas was, actually, legitimately, a Doubting Thomas.

What was that week after Jesus’ resurrection like? How did the other disciples treat him?
Did they include Thomas in their prayers, in their meals, in their strategizing about the next steps for the community? Or did they whisper, and talk behind his back, and exclude him for his unbelief?

And what was it like for Thomas during those days? I imagine he felt left out. But he must have also been frustrated. Angry, even. Why didn’t Jesus show up for him, as he did for the others? Hadn’t he been a faithful disciple? Why was belief so hard for him?

I’ve been thinking about Thomas’ week of doubt, because it seems to me, being called a “Doubting Thomas” is only an insult if it is utterly unthinkable to have doubts.

And the truth is, Thomas’ no good, very bad week is where most of us will spend our lives as disciples. Of course, in the journey of discipleship there are moments of assurance. There are mountaintop experiences and flashes of spiritual insight. And yes, there are everyday miracles, if our eyes and hearts are attuned to them.

But most days we will not enjoy absolute certainty—neither about God, nor about life and how to live it.

If we are honest, Christians live the majority of our days with Thomas in that week of uncertainty. We have questions. We wonder about things we learned in Sunday School. We learn more about the world, and then read the Bible with new eyes. We struggle with things our friends seem quite certain about.

Often we may feel ashamed of this doubt—or are made to feel ashamed, by church, by family, by culture. If we dare to express doubts to others, we may feel unwelcome at the communion table, or at Bible study, or among friends who seem to have it all together.

But what would happen if we accepted doubt as a natural part of the life of faith?

What would happen if we heard the story of Thomas as confirmation that not only is it ok to have doubts, but God works in and through doubters? After all, God has used sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, and former persecutors of Christians to build the church. God has called all kinds of imperfect people to be pastors, preachers, bishops, and even missionaries in Jerusalem. Do we really think God can’t use doubters? Do we really think our questions are enough to stop the power of the Gospel? Do we really think our struggle to believe in resurrection can halt the love and life bursting forth from the empty tomb of Jesus?

Indeed, even when we struggle to say the words, the stones will cry out:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Listen, I never did find that video of the blood on the unction stone in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I have so many doubts about its veracity. It’s probably a prank of some kind, perhaps a video released on Orthodox Good Friday as internet clickbait.

But it has occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, it was an act of devotion.

Maybe the whole dramatic scene was the work of a doubting pilgrim, someone whose heart desired evidence of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that was beyond what could be see on the typical Jerusalem city tour.

Maybe, during her long week of doubting, she lost faith that Jesus would ever show up for her.
Maybe, like Thomas, she simply needed to see it with her own eyes—and she made it happen.

Whatever the story, my heart is filled with compassion and understanding today for all of us who walk with Thomas, the doubter. I am reminded that St. John of the Cross, when writing about the “dark night of the soul,” says that in these times God is not passive, but is active, walking with us and working through our doubts and questions.

Dear siblings in Christ, in a few short minutes, our brother Paul will be baptized and welcomed into the global church as a newborn Christian. I have gotten to know Paul, and see that he is a thoughtful young man who loves Jesus, and is so very excited about this new step in his life.

But today, I feel it is important to speak a word of truth to Paul:
Dear brother, do not be afraid of doubts.
Do not be afraid of questions.
Do not be afraid to open your heart to new ideas, to new people, to new ways of reading and interpreting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
When moments, or weeks, or even years of doubt come (and they will!) it may feel confusing. You may feel alone. You may feel that Jesus will never again seem so close to you as he does today.

But the Risen Christ always shows up, dear Paul.
It won’t always happen in a dramatic way—walking through locked doors, for example, or blood miraculously appearing on video in Jerusalem.
But the Risen Christ will come to you. He will not abandon you.
You can look for him in the bread and in the wine.
You can look for him in the Holy Scriptures, which are your faithful companion through times of doubt and times of certainty.

And you can always look for him wherever two or three are gathered in his name.

For as our sister Dorothy Day wrote: “We have all known the long loneliness,  and we have learned that the solution is love, and that love comes in community.”

Do not underestimate the power of a faith community! Here is where others can sing for you, when your voice fails. Here is where others can profess the creeds alongside you, when the words seem to have lost their power.

And here is where you can come to be reminded, when the rest of the world has failed you, the resurrection miracle which is most certainly true:

You are a beloved Child of God,
You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever,
And nothing can ever separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus:

Not a stone blocking the entrance to the tomb!
Not a locked door!
And never your doubts, or your worries, or your sins.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

View of Jerusalem from Ras el Amud, 8 April 2018

Monday, April 2, 2018

The tomb is (not) empty: Easter Sermon from Jerusalem, 2018

Easter Sunrise Sermon 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Preached on the Mt. of Olives

The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith


The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Easter Sunrise on the Mt of Olives, 2018
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
Shortly after my Grandma Goldie died, my mom and I traveled together to her house in northwest Iowa to start the process of cleaning for it to be sold. Keep in mind that my grandma had lived in only three houses in all of her 89 years, and she kept everything. So we were pretty sure of what to expect when we got there: namely, about 150 sets of collectible salt and pepper shakers, drawers full of recycled jars containing items like the last 10 chocolate chips from a bag, and decades of Reader’s Digest and Guidepost magazines.

We knew and loved my Grandma Goldie, so we came expecting a huge organizational—and emotional—task. But at some point as Mom and I were going through Grandma’s collections of knick-knacks, I found something I didn’t expect. High up on a shelf, hidden behind an artificial plant, I saw a flash of hot pink. It made me smile as soon as I saw it, because I knew exactly what it was.

It was a plastic Easter egg.

The thing is, my brother is almost 5 years younger than I am, which put him at a disadvantage for our family’s annual Easter egg hunts. I also was (and still am!) an expert finder of lost things, so I could collect a basketful of eggs in just a few minutes, leaving my little brother holding an empty basket, tears streaming down his face. So one year, to make things a bit fairer, the adults started writing our names on the eggs. The rule was, if I found one that said “CARL” I was supposed to put it back for him to find. Only the ones that said “CARRIE” could go in my basket. (I seem to remember that Carl eventually just started following me around and picking up the ones I put back! Smart kid.)

Now, all these years later, I reached up and removed a hot pink plastic Easter egg from my Grandma’s knick-knack shelf and saw that it had “CARRIE” written on it in black Sharpie. Since it had my name on it, I cracked it open and saw…that it was empty.

And this made me very confused.

I thought: How could this be? Maybe my grandma hid an empty egg? That didn’t seem like her.

Maybe it contained a marshmallow peep that just evaporated after thirty years?

Maybe someone else found it, ate the Tootsie Roll out of it, and then put the egg back on the shelf! Scandalous!

Or maybe, one day when she was cleaning, my Grandma Goldie found it, thought of me, and put it back, for me to find one day.

As I stood there holding that empty egg, I realized it wasn’t empty at all. 

It was full of memories—of Easter ham and mashed potatoes, of new Easter dresses with matching hats, and of hymns like “Lift High the Cross” and “I Know that My Redeemer Lives”, which we sang every Easter at the Swedish Lutheran church across the street.

That little plastic egg, which had at first seemed empty, was in reality full of my Grandma’s love for me. And it was full of her love for Jesus, which she passed on to me.

So I snapped it back shut, and put it in my pocket.

Now, when Mary, Salome, and the other Mary got up early to attend to Jesus’ body on that first Easter morning, they thought they knew what to expect, too. Although Jesus had told the disciples several times how he would “suffer, and die, and on the third day be raised”, the women fully expected to find the body of their beloved Jesus in the tomb that morning. They bought special spices they expected to use for anointing his body. The Gospel according to Mark even tells us what they were talking about on the way to the tomb—and it was not a theological discussion about whether or not the Father would raise Jesus from the dead. It was, “Who will roll the stone away from the tomb for us?”

In other words, they expected a stone.
They expected a body.
They expected death.

But when they arrived, the women encountered something wholly unexpected. 

They saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled away from the tomb, and the tomb was empty.

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!

To be honest, I don’t really love the Easter story as told by Mark. I don’t love the way the women are portrayed in this account of the Resurrection (first of all, they don’t plan ahead for someone to move that stone for them, and then at the end of the story, Mark says they failed to share the Good News, most likely because women were not seen as worthwhile witnesses. This is not exactly a feminist text. But that’s a sermon for another day…)

Most of all, I dislike how Jesus makes no appearance at all in Mark’s version of the resurrection story. I mean, this is Easter. Give me some angels, not some guy in a white dress! Give me an earthquake and some lightning! Give me some Jesus, not some old empty cave! Amen!

But listen, as the man in white said: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place where they laid him.”

Some details may differ, but the empty tomb appears in all four Gospels, and for good reason:

The empty tomb is the ultimate sign that what Jesus had prophesied is true: that he is risen from the dead. 
The tomb did not, and could not, contain Jesus for long!
The tomb did not, and could not, bury God’s love for us!

So yes, the tomb is empty--
It is empty of death.
It is empty of despair.

But it is full of something else: It is full of hope!
The tomb of Jesus is full of hope, for there is no situation in life which God cannot transform for the good! Amen!
The tomb is full of hope, because we never have to settle for things as they are. God is always making things new! Amen!
The tomb is full of hope, because goodness is stronger than evil! Amen!
The tomb is full of hope, because death never has the last word! Amen!

And the tomb of Jesus, which the women found empty, is also full of love—the love of the Father for the Son, and the love of God for the world, a love which we have come to know through Christ’s suffering on the cross, with us and for us. Thanks be to God.

My dear siblings in Christ,
This has been one heck of a Lenten season. 

It started off with a bang—and I mean that literally—with the shooting deaths of 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Ash Wednesday.

And the season culminated on Good Friday, which also happened to be Land Day here in Palestine. As we were remembering the crucifixion of Jesus, walking the Via Dolorosa here in Jerusalem, at least 16 Palestinians were being killed by IDF forces near the Gaza border.

I can’t stop thinking about those 17 who died in their school in my home country,
And of those 16 who died while protesting, while praying, even while running away, trying to protect the hope of simply having a home country.

Lent always begins with ashes and ends with the cross, but this year, the reality of sin, violence, death, and our human brokenness seems especially heavy, and especially predictable.

Worshipers at the Easter Sunrise service 2018
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
So I understand if maybe you came here this morning not expecting much.

I understand if you came expecting more of the same from the world, and from the church.

I understand if you, like Mary and Mary and Salome, came to worship feeling empty, and you are just going through the motions:

Because this is what we do on Easter Sunday,
Because this is what we do when someone we love dies,
Because this is what we do when the world seems to be falling apart.

But dear people, hear the Good News of Easter:
God has seen our broken hearts,
God has seen our broken promises,
God has seen our broken societies,
God has even seen the broken body of the Son, Jesus—a body broken by our sin—and God has done something completely unexpected:

In great love, God has raised Jesus from the tomb, and has raised us to new life with him. Thanks be to God, the tomb is empty! He is risen! Amen!

But in this difficult time, when so many feel empty already,
hear me when I say that the empty tomb of Jesus is not the absence of anything.

It is the presence of God’s love for you.
It is the presence of resurrection hope.
It is the presence of salvation for a broken world and for broken people.
It is the presence of healing, of wholeness, and of new beginnings.
It is the presence of peace with justice for every nation.
It is the presence of life, and life abundant, for all of God’s creation.

When I think of the empty tomb today, and all that it means for followers of Jesus, I can’t help but think about that plastic Easter egg I found in my Grandma’s house—the one that appeared to be empty, but was full of so much love: 
The one with my name on it.

On this Easter morning, I invite you to think of the empty tomb of Jesus as a precious, unexpected gift, with your name written on it.

Some of the Redeemer community enjoying the sunrise after worship
Easter morning 2018, Mt of Olives
Photo by Ben Gray/ELCJHL
In great love, God has carefully placed this gift where seekers could find it, again and again: 

In Scripture, 
in bread and wine,
and in the company of fellow believers,

here in Jerusalem, and wherever two or there are gathered in his name.

Thanks be to God! And so, with all the saints on earth and in heaven, let us proclaim once again:

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!
Alleluia, Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed, Alleluia!